For the establishment of this fine new blog the owners asked me to write a guest post, which I would love to do, and to be a regular contributor on Dutch football and write the occasional guest post on whatever catches my fancy.
So today my post will be about Giovanni van Bronckhorst, the former player with the mob boss name. We learned this week that Arsene Wenger had invited Gio over to Arsenal to work with the coaching staff and get his KNVB and UEFA licenses that way, like earlier former Arsenal players have done. Unfortunately the KNVB decided that if players want to get these licenses, they are no longer allowed to go to clubs that they used to play for. Since Gio was once a Gunner, he will always be a Gunner. And that means he is now at Man City, learning from the likes of David Platt and Brian Kidd. The news did get me thinking about Gio van Bronckhorst, the former player with the mob boss name. About how much of a stand-up guy he is. About what an excellent career he has had. And how he is different from the tonnes of money grabbing whores involved in football today.
Paul Bosvelt, a former Dutch player and former teammate of Gio, likes to joke that he can tell his kids one day that he played for the biggest team in the world, as he played for Man City in the early noughties. His friend Gio will probably disagree. Gio can claim one of the finest careers in world football, spanning four nations and only four clubs (well, he did a loan spell in his youth once in NL, but that doesn’t count). He played for a Rangers team with a few Dutch players and an excellent Dutch manager in Advocaat at the turn of the millennium. This was when Scottish football actually meant something, when he faced a great striker like Henrik Larsson on a regular basis and when the Old Firm was one of the biggest sporting events in Britain.
Gio was an interesting player in his formative years. One of those many players that start further forward and end up playing in a more defensive role, he was a winger or central midfielder as a teenager. When he played regularly for Feyenoord and later Rangers, he played as a defensive midfielder with very good technique and vision. When he played for Arsenal, he sometimes played as a left back, where he finished his career at Barca, Feyenoord and the Dutch national team. He is the archetypical multifunctional player, highly adaptable to positions and playing styles. He could be a hard tackling biter like Davids, he could do some wonderful passing from deep, he could be a marauding wing-back or a stable fullback. This multifunctionality may have been why he never really started much for Arsenal, Barcelona or in the early parts of his international career. Yet what player in world football can boast such an amazing career?
Not only was Gio part of a Rangers team that was not only a very good and interesting side, he won two SPL’s. At Arsenal he won the 2001-2002 league title and was a part of a team that we now know as the Invincibles, although he left before the 2003-2004 season. At Barcelona he was part of the side that beat Arsenal to the 2006 Champions League and saw the insurgence of people like Iniesta and Messi from close by, players that are now amongst the greatest in recent history. And being Gio, he did that all with a cerebral, knowing approach to football.
Everyone I have ever spoken to who knows Gio or interviewed him speak of an intelligent, affable, nice lad with a genuinely warm personality and a good sense of humour. What also stands out is his absolute love of football and his acute sense of understanding of the game. Very few players are as capable as Gio was in reading a game, not just as a player, but as a pundit or coach too. Whilst comparing Gio to a Pirlo or a Xabi Alonso in terms of technical ability would be blasphemy, he did have their vision and their ability to spot a pass, albeit without the same execution. Later as a defender, even at the end of his career when his legs were gone, he was never really caught out. He timed his runs well, he overlapped when it was safe and he held back when it wasn’t. Credit must go to Guus Hiddink, who played him as left back for the national side, and Arsene Wenger, who converted him during his time at Arsenal.
What makes me like Gio more is his lack of footballing personality. By that I mean, you will never hear Gio in the newspapers tapping up a player, or cheating on his wife, or demanding a raise. He loved the fans at the clubs he played for and was a fan favourite at all of them. When he was captain of Oranje the nation was more united in their support than we have been in a very long time. When he played for Arsenal he struggled with form, fitness and injuries. To this day he is saddened that he couldn’t offer the club more, that he couldn’t offer the fans more, and couldn’t reach his transfer value. He need not worry, for not only do many Gooners have fond memories of Gio, so does the manager, and when we sold him to Barca, it was as part of (although this is disputed) the deal to bring in a certain Cesc Fabregas…
When Gio talked to one of the Arsenal twitter eminence grises (namely mr @northbanklower) before the 2006 CL final he told him how his plan was always to go to Feyenoord when his career dwindled. And unlike those footballers that claim they will do something like that but never do, he did. He was rewarded with the captaincy and a place amongst their all time greats. Feyenoord had this unusual idea that buying all their old players (who were on huge wages) would help the club challenge for trophies and let their massive academy churn out talents so the club would profit. Unfortunately they never challenged for trophies, the talents didn’t perform and the old guys were mutinying against the managers. The club got in dire financial straits. So what did Gio do? He took a massive pay cut. Twice. Whilst others, such as Makaay and Hofland, refused to do so, Gio would sacrifice money for the club that had always helped him, had raised him and had loved hm. That marks him out as the man he is.
Whilst I struggle to recall memories of great moments by our Gio whilst at Arsenal, I can forgive him for the person he is, and has since become. As part of Ronald Koeman’s backroom staff for Feyenoord he helped guide them to an amazing second place in the league last season and was the personal confidant of huge talents like Jordie Clasie and Stefan de Vrij. With a view to being a manager he now has to take the licensing course. And it is little wonder that Arsene Wenger has invited him to coach at the club. Wenger has always had an eye for the person inside a player, for the future of that player, and had clearly earmarked Gio as one of his former players who could be an excellent coach or even manager. Dennis Bergkamp is amongst Gio’s circle of friends and so is Edgar Davids, who despite his tough exterior has a university degree and loves reading Nietzsche. Gio is popular in the Netherlands despite playing for one of the clubs that 90% of the population despise. Even Ajax fans will admit he is a legend and a great servant to Dutch football. He captained a mediocre and disjointed Dutch team all the way to the final of the 2010 World Cup and contributed with a peach of a strike against Uruguay. This summer the Dutch side was awful, disharmonious and falling apart at the seams. Gio would have been the glue to hold them together.
One day we may see him manage a football team, maybe even in England, maybe even Arsenal. And then we can think back to a player, who, whilst unassuming, quiet and unnoticeable both on and off the pitch had one of the finest careers in football. He will have seen the inner workings of the Invincibles, of the Barcelona of Ronaldinho and the rise of Messi, Xavi and Iniesta. And to a person who defied all current logic we have about footballers. We think back to Gio. A man we all love to love.